She was her mom’s sous chef.
Reyna Duong was born in a small fishing village on the southern tip of Vietnam — a tattoo on her forearm bears the city’s name — and grew up in California’s Orange County. Sharing food using the right ingredients from home was a non-negotiable rite of passage. Duong and her mom crafted dishes side by side; she grew up with assigned tasks like peeling piping-hot peanuts by hand. If she mentioned to her mom that she could buy shelled peanuts at the grocery for half the work, she got a stern whack across the head.
Family food, lovingly fired at home, was first. Duong’s mom, who has since died of cancer, avoided taking the family out to eat, except for the occasional banh mi.
They’d scour the markets in Orange County, on the hunt for a sandwich stuffed with grill-charred pork, pickled radish and carrots, fresh cilantro, the heat of a green pepper and a French baguette with golden crackling and a pillow-soft interior.
“We’d find a baguette that wasn’t so hard it’d cut the roof of your mouth,” Duong says.
Sandwich Hag, Duong’s new spot in the Cedars, is 10 years in the making. It started as a few pop-up spots. About two months ago, Duong focused her business lens onto a an old cigar lounge. She opened a tightly run, spotless kitchen that’s delivering some stunning, bright sandwiches with a deep respect for the iconic ingredients of a real banh mi.
Duong’s bringing her family food to Dallas after years of working in finance and sales. Most recently, she was a sales executive with the Adidas group.
“I wanted to do this in honor of her,” Duong says of her mom’s inspiration. “We don’t cut corners.”
Her laser focus on one thing, built from scratch, is refreshing in city bursting at the seams with multipage artisan menus. The pork sausage banh mi — a neat and rectangular patty, charred and surrounded by pickled radish, a generously hot jalapeño, pickled radish and daikon, fresh cilantro and a Quoc Bao bakery baguette — is special. Duong grinds the sausage daily by hand. The pickled radish and daikon have crunch and bite and are cut into neat sky-scraper shapes. Smoothed roasted garlic is folded into the house mayo. This is a stop, drop your phone and pay attention banh mi.
On the first day of fall, I’m sitting on the patio in a pleasant Dallas breeze, with my family, a lemongrass pork banh mi and a pork sausage sandwich. The sandwiches are about $10 each with tax. Duong is taking orders at the window; she’s at her restaurant every day. She turns every now and then to direct the kitchen. Everything’s done by hand, scratch-made in small batches at Sandwich Hag. When it runs out, it closes. On a recent Sunday, it closed early after running out of nearly every major ingredient.
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“The process takes a long time. We could probably make it quicker, but I like small batches,” Duong says. She’s looking to minimize food waste. There's an occasional wait of a few minutes.
“My one rule is no assholes," she says.
The breeze kicks up on the patio, and a tiny glacier of ice floats in my Topo Chico. Trucks roar down Lamar. This is sandwich eating at its finest: fresh, clean and unpretentious; laser-focused on the real ingredients and eaten with two feet planted on the ground.
Sandwich Hag, 1902 S. Lamar St.